The Interviewer’s Mindset
When preparing for a case interview, perhaps the best thing that you can do to prepare is step into the mind of a case interviewer and try to understand why they do the things they do. What are they thinking? What are they looking for? Focusing on these questions will make it easier to impress them and to know what will either make or break your interview.
In a case interview, you are evaluated on two things: 1) your ability to follow a structured, analytical problem-solving framework; and 2) your ability to reach the correct conclusions based on that process—the former being the most important. Your ability to consistently use a successful process holds more weight in the interviewer’s eyes than whether you arrive at the correct answer within the allotted time.
Although preparation for a case interview is useful and necessary—most interviewees who have received an offer have rehearsed anywhere from 50-100 hours on practice cases—it’s also helpful to remember this one principle: Interviewers look for candidates who already seem like colleagues.
When it comes down to it, your case interview is going to be a very accurate depiction of your everyday job, if hired. It will mimic the onslaught of demands and surprising questions that you will receive from clients.
So, how do you become a colleague in an interviewer’s eyes?
While interviewers are looking for someone who is an analytical, independent problem solver, they are also largely paying attention to whether a candidate is an effective communicator with good interpersonal skills.
Ultimately, clients are not just going to trust every factually accurate recommendation. They are going to trust factually accurate recommendations that they understand. Which means that a consultant must be able to communicate in a linear manner that goes from step A to B to C to D and so on—not jumping around between topics in a way that the client won’t follow.
Furthermore, interviewers are looking for independent problem solvers. In other words, they’re thinking to themselves:Will this person be able to solve problems quickly on their own, or will I have to babysit them for the next two years while also juggling my own career?
The quicker that an interviewer believes they will be able to let you loose to work on projects independently, the more likely they are to want you on their team. Their ability to continue with their work is largely dependent on the ability of the consultants they oversee to be independent problem solvers who do their own work.
The interviewer wants to know if you can think on your feet and handle the pressures that consultants face when dealing with clients—maintaining your composure through the whole process.
Interviewers will sometimes put this to the test by asking off-the-wall, non-standard case interview questions that cannot possibly be answered in three minutes. In these cases, the interviewer is not looking for an exact right answer, but for how you reach a conclusion and how you explain it.
Lastly, an interviewer wants an candidate to be able to isolate a problem, sifting out information that doesn’t matter and identifying only key needs. By the end of the interview, they want to be able to gauge whether you truly understand what mattered and what didn’t.
There is no need to reiterate every piece of data. Simply highlighting two to five critical discoveries that support your chosen recommendation will show the interviewer what you find important and how you would present your findings to a potential client.
Overall, every action an interviewer takes and every question they ask is purposeful and intended to simulate some aspect of the on-the-job experience. They are looking for candidates who are able to communicate clearly and back up everything they say confidently and factually.
If you’re looking for more information on this topic, go to CaseInterview.com for access to my free educational videos regarding the case interview process and what interviewers are looking for.
How to Prep for Candidate-Led & Interviewer-Led Interviews
Depending on the firm that you are applying to, you will encounter either a candidate-led case interview or an interviewer-led case interview. Before going in for your case interview, research the firm to find out which format they typically use.
Preparing for a Candidate-Led Case Interview
A candidate-led interview starts with a broad problem (e.g. Our company’s revenue has been dropping for the last year. What should we do about it?). You will need to lead the case to a solution. This mimics the way that a client would trust their consultant to take charge of a case. The firm wants to know if you are able to handle the entire end-to-end problem-solving process.
Interviewers in these cases tend to be more concerned with synthesis—how well you draw a very specific conclusion from a very broad problem. The main skill needed to do this is called structuring or “structuring and investigating.”
It’s common to struggle with the transition between structuring and investigating. Although you should begin with a framework, once new information is uncovered, it is not only okay but necessary to deviate from that initial framework.
You will have to restructure the case to reflect new information, scrapping old questions and asking new ones as needed.
Ask yourself, “Which factor will have the biggest impact on the hypothesis?” Then focus on that. If it’s unclear, ask some clarifying questions. In many cases, it’s not going to be obvious right away. This is where the “investigating” aspect comes into play to hone in on a final solution.
Practice running through entire cases on your own. Record yourself and review the recordings to look for any flaws in your performance.
Preparing for an Interviewer-Led Case Interview
In an interviewer-led case interview, you will complete the case one piece at a time, answering the interviewer’s questions, typically in this sequence shown in this example:
- Why is a company’s profitability falling, and what would be your approach to fix it?
- Estimate the market size of this industry.
- Based on data provided by the interviewer, do quantitative analysis of a particular area.
- Write down some broad suggestions to increase revenue.
The first question is meant to help frame the problem, but then the second point immediately prompts you to focus on a totally different aspect of the case. This is an intentional interruption meant to test how you respond. Can you switch gears quickly, or do you get distracted easily by the stop-and-go format?
Practice giving concise answers to these types of questions because you will only have 5-8 minutes to find each answer. Don’t worry about synthesizing the whole case until the conclusion -- focus on the topic at hand.
For the “suggestions” portion of the interview, try to keep your analysis and solutions for the problem in categories. Don’t just start listing things in random order. Come up with categories of possible answers, list the potential problem areas within each category, and then list your specific ideas for each problem area. This will help you keep your thoughts in order and make it easier for the interviewer to understand your reasoning.
For the conclusion, the biggest difference in an interviewer-led case interview is that the interviewer will often give you their hypothesis and then ask you to prove it wrong. You’re using the same skill set to construct a hypothesis that you would use in a candidate-led interview, but the tempo and focus are completely dictated by the interviewer.
Overall, both styles test the same skills. You just need to be prepared for the way that those skills will be tested. Candidate-led interviews are like being in the driver’s seat, where interviewer-led interviews are like being in the passenger seat.
First Impressions and the Personal Experience Interview (PEI)
Going into a personal experience interview (PEI) can be a little bit like walking into a den of hungry lions. But, before you get nervous, let me tell you how you can make a solid first impression on your interviewer(s).
It helps to remember that consultants are building relationships as well as solving problems. You have to be able to work well with all members of the team. By the time a firm gets the nod to send in a consultant, the company is already in disarray. It's likely that department managers disagree over the solution, and it will take some diplomacy to sort everything out.
Here are some important tips to remember when you go into a PEI.
Know What They're Seeking
Interviewers' questions can vary widely during a PEI. But, the questions are used to determine whether you possess two basic qualities — leadership skills and interpersonal conflict resolution abilities.
Both of these qualities are needed to complement the quantitative analysis skills that you display during the case interview portion of the recruiting process.
Many consulting candidates mistakenly reference only their workplace experiences for examples in a PEI, but don't limit yourself. Include relevant examples from any appropriate aspects of your life. Be creative when formulating your response.
Tell a Good Story
If you want to stand out from the crowd and make the strongest impression, you have to paint a compelling picture. So, be a good storyteller. Don’t fabricate or overly embellish a scenario, but frame the example in a way that keeps the interviewer interested and invested in what you’re saying.
Here's how you can do that:
- Give the story context. Don’t go overboard, but make sure that the interviewer understands any relevant background information.
- Outline the problem. Make sure to fully explain the problem that you faced and any of its negative effects.
- Explain your solution. Walk them through your resolution process and how you came to the conclusion that this solution was appropriate.
- Quantify the impact. Describe how your solution improved the company or department with numbers and solid evidence.
- Relate any learned lessons. What did you learn from the process? Convey any pearls of wisdom that you gained from the experience.
Use any relevant personal anecdotes that are appropriate in a workplace setting. You need to come across as calm and likable -- someone who can be trusted to get things done.
What Interviewers Look for in First Round Interviews
The purpose of the first round case interview is pretty simple: interviewers want to know if you can think like a consultant and work well with clients.
They are looking for skills that show that you would be a good consultant, like whether you can be analytical and highly structured in solving business problems. Interviewers evaluate this skill through the case interview.
Case interviews are remarkably similar to everyday life on the job. In general, if you do well in a case interview and you enjoy it... there's a very good chance that you will love consulting and do well in this position.
The other trait that they look for in the first round is whether you will work well with clients. The interviewer is wondering, “Can I put this person in front of a client and not embarrass myself?” In short, are you arrogant? Are you offensive? Are you able to tell a client they’re totally wrong in a way that won’t humiliate them or harm your relationship? If a client is hostile, do you have the emotional intelligence skills to win them over?
Good people skills are essential in a management consultant. If you can come to the right answer but you can’t convey your ideas in a way that is appealing to your client, they may toss your answer out anyway. If your client feels that you are arrogant or dismissive towards them, it is likely that they won’t want to work with you again. So, make sure that you show your ability to work well with clients in your interview.
Different Formats of the First Round Interview
A key difference in the first round interview vs. other rounds is the way that the interview could be conducted.
First round interviews can be conducted in a few different forms — in person, via video or telephone call, or in a group setting. Depending on what type of interview you have, there are different skills you will need to show the interviewer (remembering that they are evaluating you to see if you can work well with clients, not just solve the case).
For an in-person first round interview, make sure that you make plenty of eye contact with your interviewer throughout the case, even after you’ve presented your solution. This is especially important while you are still working through the case.
Your confidence level really shapes what type of impression you leave. It subconsciously tells the interviewer that they can trust your problem-solving abilities. Ultimately, it doesn’t come down to being right or wrong -- it comes down to whether you can use your analytical skills to make a convincing argument for your solution. If you’re not sure of yourself, the interviewer will be able to tell.
You can show confidence through your words and through your body language. Some examples of good body language include sitting up straight, making eye contact, smiling, and nodding or verbally showing that you are actively listening when someone speaks to you.
If you’re interviewing via video call, eye contact is just as important. Also, keep in mind the potential for video and/or audio delay. To combat this added hurdle, slow down your pace of speech, repeat information more often and make sure to pause when you anticipate that the interviewer might say something. This will show that you can be flexible and adapt to less than ideal circumstances.
Another thing to remember in a video call interview is that you will need to explain how you are working through problems and any math that you are doing. Although the interviewer will be able to see your face, he or she may not be able to see what you write. Make sure to describe what you’re writing in enough detail for them to get a clear picture.
The same is true of first round case interviews over the phone. You’ll need to describe your process and math in such detail that the interviewer can accurately recreate it on their end. Doing this may seem tedious but will serve as a great opportunity to show the interviewer your communication abilities and people skills. It shows that you have the patience to work with clients who need the whole process and the math thoroughly explained to them.
In a group case interview, interviewers want to discern if you can work well on a team while solving the problem at hand. Prepare by being mindful of your own daily interactions with others. Do you easily irritate or upset people? Do you tend to be more argumentative? If so, start consciously working on having positive day-to-day interactions with others to prepare for the interactions you’ll have in the interview. This will help you ace the case.
These tips may seem unimportant or small compared to the other skills you need for a case interview. However, it’s important to remember that having good people skills is essential if you want to be a good management consultant. These traits matter just as much as the more technical skills that you need to display, so don’t forget your people skills because you’re so focused on the case.
The key thought here is that the first round is about determining your consulting IQ and your consulting EQ. Both are very important on the job, and thus, both are very important in the interview process.
What Interviewers Look for in Second Round Interviews
In the second or final round case interview, one or more partners will often be in the room. Don’t let this worry you. The questions that they ask are very similar to those in previous rounds. If there’s one thing that you can do differently to prepare for them, it’s to focus more heavily on the synthesis of your conclusions. Oftentimes, partners will pay more attention to how you communicate your findings than more junior consultants.
Ultimately, the partners are in the second round interview because, at this point in the process, they’re not just searching for a good candidate. All of the candidates in second round interviews meet the criteria for the position. But, who exceeds expectations?Interviewers are trying to identify those who meet the absolute highest standards of what the firm is looking for.
For final round interviews, there will often be multiple in one day. This is done to test your consistency and to see if you can solve a variety of cases one after another. Try not to panic if you don’t do so hot on one of them. Dwelling on it will only make you perform worse as the day goes on. Just keep going and try your best to nail each of the cases given to you.
Occasionally in later rounds, you will get an off-the-wall case that doesn't fit perfectly into any of the frameworks you know and are prepared for. Be encouraged, though, that this is rare. Don't worry about preparing for every bizarre case that could get thrown your way. Stick to preparing for cases that are more common.
If you do get a weird case, remember that it may require you to adjust a standard framework to fit.. Find a way to organize your thoughts in a structured manner. Then, do the best you can to think on your feet to find a plausible solution.
Be careful not to over-structure (which is basically structuring, but in the wrong way). Interviewers are watching for this in the second-round interviews.
Over-structuring could mean that you’re using a framework that doesn’t fit the case at hand. It could mean that you need to modify your framework, but you are trying to force it to work in the traditional way instead. Or, you may have a good structure but are not able to follow it through to a hypothesis or point of focus.
So, be mindful that you may need to deviate from the originally established framework to find the root of the issue. Recognize that each framework has its limitations and it may be appropriate to switch approaches midway.
Overall, in case interviews, interviewers are looking for case performance, consistency, teamwork, and communication skills. The final round is verifying those skills and then checking to see if you have the "total package" to be a good consultant.